By Lt Col Terrence G. Popravak, Jr., USAF (Retired), 142nd Fighter Wing History Office
/ Published September 18, 2014
PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. -- It was an annual reunion of the 381st Bombardment Group (Heavy), a B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber outfit based at Ridgefield, England during World War II. The group, with the motto "Triumphant We Fly," flew nearly 300 combat missions in the European theater of Operations (ETO), but in early September, 2014, group members flew to Portland, Oregon, their target for a reunion of the 381st Bomb Group (H) Memorial Association (381BGMA).
They came from all corners of the States, 381st Bomb Group (381BG) veterans, family members and friends from second and even third generations.
They came to celebrate and to commemorate their heritage, forged in the flak and fighter-filled skies of northwestern Europe. They remembered comrades whom they served with as they flew and fought on many hard missions, and a few milk runs too.
They also reached out to the current generation of those who fly, and toured Portland Air National Guard Base on September 4, 2014 where they were briefed on the mission of the Oregon Air National Guard's 142nd Fighter Wing (142FW). In addition, the 142FW team supported the reunion events with an Honor Guard and Chaplain for the Memorial Service and a presentation on 142FW history at the culminating banquet on September 6.
Indeed, there is evidence of a historic connection between the 381st and the 142nd's World War II predecessor, the 371st Fighter Group (371FG). On at least one occasion in May, 1944, 371FG P-47 Thunderbolt fighters flew escort for B-17s of the 381st's bomb division. And immediately after the war, between 12-14 May 1945, 381BG B-17's helped retrieve some 3000 Allied POWs from Stalag Luft I, which included at least two 371FG P-47 pilots formerly prisoners in that camp.
It may not be well-known, but in the strategic bombing campaign in Europe during World War II the Eighth Air Force, to which the 381BG belonged, suffered perhaps the highest number of casualties of any single American military organization, over 47,000 (half the WWII casualties of the US Army Air Forces), including more than 26,000 killed and 5,100 aircraft losses. In the 297 missions the 381BG flew, the unit suffered 1,407 personnel casualties, including 619 dead or missing and 131 B-17 losses; 686 other men became prisoners of war, 61 others evaded capture, and 41 were interred in neutral countries. In the first three brutal months of the group's operations, 27 of the original 36 aircrews were lost in action, leaving only a fraction to complete their tour of 25 missions.
On two nights during the reunion 381st veterans shared their stories. Ed Carr, pilot of B-17G "Dream Baby" in the 533rd Bomb Squadron flew a total of 35 combat missions and recalled the notoriety his ship received after being photographed in Kodachrome during the war. In a rather warm welcome to Europe, he saw a German V-1 "Buzz Bomb" pass right overhead on his second day of training shortly after his arrival in England. He wrote a book in 2002 about his wartime experience titled "On Final Approach."
Bryan Nelson, son of co-pilot Robert Nelson who hailed from Gresham, Oregon, showed a video interview of his father as he recalled his impressive evasion and recovery story after being shot down inside Germany during the infamous Schweinfurt raid of 17 August 1943. His father and a gunner, assigned to a 532nd Bomb Squadron crew, made it out of Germany, across Luxembourg, Belgium, France, and Spain before reaching Gibraltar and flying back to England some months later.
Stuart Newman was originally a bombardier who flew five missions with the 533rd Bomb Squadron in such capacity before being given a two week crash course in European navigation, after which he flew as a navigator. On one flak-ridden mission he thought the togglier in the nose of the plane had fallen asleep, to which the T/Sgt replied "I wasn't sleeping I was praying!" Newman was the navigator for pilot Ed Carr's last mission of the war, in which he had to quickly pick an alternate target for the unit to strike when weather broke up the formation. This reunion was the first time since the war that the two men had met.
Dick Schneider was a tail gunner in the 533rd Bomb Squadron. Grounded for three days for an ear infection, his crew went missing in action two days later. It took him a long time to complete his 30-mission combat tour as a spare gunner, and his squadron commander finally intervened to schedule his last two missions so he could finish. He recalled the frustration of weather during the Battle of the Bulge, when the group launched aircraft in the fog and climbed up in the soup, reaching 31,000 feet and still not breaking through the top of it, firing off a whole case of flares though no one could see them in the miserable conditions.
Burton Hill, from Cove, Oregon, was a flight engineer/top turret gunner in the 532nd Bomb Squadron. He remembered some tough missions, when the flak thrown at his ship seemed like a bunch of sand pelting the airframe, a very terrifying situation to be in. He was still able to fit into his T/Sgt service dress uniform which he wore at a couple of events. Hill said to the audience, "I would do it again if they said "let's go!" I love America (and) love all of you. Me and all my ancestors would go through it again."
Lou Perrone was a ball turret gunner in the 533rd Bomb Squadron, and recalled how the pilots, bombardiers, navigators and gunners went to their separate briefings before a mission. He too lost a crew after his 14th mission while grounded for an air bubble in his ear drum. He retrained as a togglier and narrowly missed flying aboard another ill-fated aircraft when a bombardier replaced him suddenly in a lead ship on the flight line. Perrone remembered the yellow nose fighters coming out of the sun, trying to break up the B-17 formation. He called the air war over Europe "a young man's game," and said "If anybody tells you they didn't pray, he briefly paused for effect, "everybody prayed." An accomplished gunner, he is credited with two kills and a probable against Luftwaffe fighter planes.
Jim Gray was a navigator in the 535th Bomb Squadron. He recalled a tragedy when one of the aircraft in formation accidentally hit another one below with a pair of 100 pound bombs which tore off the nose and killed a man in the nose of the aircraft; one bomb lodged in the nose of the stricken aircraft, though the crew was able to eject it out the front hatch. The aircraft miraculously survived. Gray did too, staying in service during the Korean War and the Cold War. He decided to write about his experience in an upcoming book titled "Vanishing Contrails."
Other 381BG veterans shared their stories at other points during the reunion. Theodore Homdrom was a navigator in the 535th Bomb Squadron and completed 29 missions before being wounded on his 30th. This last combat mission was to Berlin and he was the lead navigator for the 1st Combat Wing, which included the 381st and two other B-17 groups. Homdrom was wounded when the aircraft was hit by flak on the run in to the target but kept at his post to assure mission completion, for which he later received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He went into the ministry after the war and served overseas again, this time as a missionary in South Africa for 35 years. He wrote a wartime memoir in 2001 titled "Mission Memories."
Leonard Spivey flew as a lead navigator in the 535th Bomb Squadron during the group's early and difficult missions in the summer of 1943. He remembered the day when a B-17 being loaded with bombs blew up at Ridgefield a quarter mile away from where he was, and how a piece or armored plate from the doomed ship landed right in front of him. Spivey was shot down in a B-17F two days after the August Schweinfurt raid, bailed out and was captured, spending the rest of the war in POW camps. He survived the brutal forced march of POWs from Stalag Luft III (famous for the Great Escape) in the cold winter of 1944-45. He also survived cancer years later.
Herb Kwart, togglier with the 534th Bomb Squadron, retained his excellent sense of humor, standup comedy shared at the banquet, even as he recalled in sidebar conversation when his bomber's number 2 engine was shot out by flak over Merseburg, and the stricken aircraft lagged behind. A pair of P-51 Mustang fighters escorted the bomber back out of enemy territory. A not so great memory he had was a terrible images blazed onto his mind forever, when he witnessed a stricken B-17 fall out of control and colliding with another B-17 in the formation, destroying both aircraft and all their crewmen.
Darrell Blizzard was a pilot who flew near the end of the war in the 535th Bomb Squadron, and participated in two Operation Revival missions to Stalag Luft I at Barth, Germany. He flew one plane-load of Commonwealth prisoners back to the UK and another load of American former-POWs to Camp Lucky Strike in France.
Joe Waddell, co-pilot with the 535th Bomb Squadron, was headed for the Pacific before the Battle of the Bulge, and was then diverted to Europe in anticipation of increased attrition. Losses were not so high, and he soon found himself flying instrument training mission, slow timing engines, weather reconnaissance and such before he accomplished an operational mission, flying in Operation Revival and bringing a plane-load of British former-POW's home.
Some veterans attended with extended family present too. Leo Foley was a 533rd Bomb squadron tail gunner credited with 32 combat missions in 1944. His wife, Anne, and three daughters and husbands all attended. Leo continued in service after WWII and retired from the Air Force as a Chief Master Sergeant.
Nick Hahn was a flight engineer/top turret gunner with the 534th Bomb Squadron and completed 31 combat missions in the 1944-45 timeframe. His son and grandson and their families were in attendance.
Lest this be an all aircrew story, the reunion also honored the unheralded members of the ground echelon, absolutely vital to any air effort, who were represented in Portland by their sons and daughters. Marlene Miller's father was Marshall Peavy, a 533rd Bomb Squadron crew chief and then line chief. Susan Cathcart Robinson, her mother Magdalena, and sister Sandra were all there to remember George Cathcart, a 533rd Bomb Squadron crew chief.
According to Dr. Kevin Wilson, whose father S/Sgt Howard Wilson was in the 448th Sub-Depot supporting the 381BG, "The group had outstanding ground personnel with permanent awards for the top performing maintenance Sub-Depot in the entire First Air Division of the 8th AAF and a later Meritorious Unit award to the 448th Sub-Depot, the first such award in the entire European Theater of Operations." All three of these ground personnel, since passed away, were with the group throughout the 381st's entire combat service in the ETO.
There was also one other B-17 combat crew veteran present at the 381st reunion, from the other numbered air force that flew strategic bombing missions in the ETO, the Fifteenth. Don Hayes, who flew in the 414th Bomb Squadron of the 97th Bomb Group took part. Of note, his 97BG was originally assigned to Eighth Air Force and flew the first B-17 mission against Nazi-occupied Europe in August, 1942 before it was transferred to the Mediterranean theater of operations.
Also present to participate in and support the reunion with B-17 artifacts, scale models, images and information was Donald Keller of the Oregon Chapter of the 8th Air Force Historical Society. His presence represented some of the interest in the local community for the military heritage of our aviation nation.
These veterans, their family members and friends shared many more recollections and stories about their units and their comrades during the reunion. The younger generations are doing their part to sustain the 3871BGMA and commemorate the group and its achievements and sacrifices. Chad Strohmayer is the son of Portland-reunion participant 532nd Bomb Squadron co-pilot Alex Strohmayer, a Purple Heart recipient due to flak at Mainz, Germany, (and whose B-17 "Patches" from Ridgewell was depicted in a .32-cent US postage stamp issued in 1997). He is planning a 381BG documentary to honor his father, the other men and the unit.
The 381st Bomb Group is fortunate in that it has a modern day successor, unlike many WWII groups, which was found in the Cold War era 381st Strategic Missile Wing at McConnell AFB, Kansas (SAC, Titan II ICBM) and now in the 381st Training Group (AETC), at Vandenberg AFB, California.
These men of the 381st represent the World War II generation that fought for freedom against the Axis powers. Their service and sacrifice is honored by a grateful nation, as seen in the reunion of the veterans and participation by family and friends from second and third generations. They honored the achievements and sacrifices of their organization. For anyone who would like to learn more about the achievements of the 381st Bomb Group in World War II, please see the 381st Bomb Group Memorial Association official website at: http://www.381st.org/
The men and women of the 142nd Fighter Wing are also grateful for these combat veterans of the 381st Bomb Group, and were honored and privileged to share their time and talent in support of the reunion, and to reflect on the World War II connection between the two units. We salute you all, the men and women of the 381st Bomb Group Memorial Association. You are truly a great group of patriots and fellow Americans!
And for anyone who has served or is currently serving in the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, or regular Air Force, the heritage held within your unit is a precious thing, something to be learned, cherished, celebrated and commemorated. Each one is unique, with a fascinating story to tell about how it fit(s) into the big picture of aerospace operations. Previous generations served in war and peace to establish and operate a given air unit and bring it to where it is today, all in order to defend our nation and its people. We should never take our unit heritage, and the legacy of professionalism given us, for granted.
And today, in an uncertain world not unlike the time that the men of 381st Bomb Group served in, the men and women of Oregon's 142nd Fighter Wing Redhawks are ready to serve the community, state and nation, 24/7, as ready as the World War II generation was in order to defend our freedom and our way of life.